Monday, February 20, 2012

Jason goes to Indiefest--Day 11

A 5 movie Sunday, so let's jump right in.

This is the day Indiefest got high, with 3 of the 5 films having some kind of drug theme. First up was a pot documentary, CALIFORNIA 90420. The tagline is "The story of 4:20 somethings" but the movie is kinda stolen by one person--Ix. She's a spritely figure who is so effusive in her love of pot that it made me think two things: A) I hope some day to love anything as much as she loves pot, and B) when I do, I hope I'm not as annoying as she is about it. It can be fun to watch a pothead for a couple of hours, but I don't wanna be one, and I wouldn't even want to be around one for too long. Maybe I'm officially old, but nowadays my support for pot legalization (and I do support it) is entirely a libertarian argument. I have little appreciation for people who believe legalizing pot will solve all (or any) of the world's problems. But I'm digressing, Ix is very excited to get into Weed College (no, not Reed College, Weed College) or as it's officially known, Oaksterdam University. For the most part, it is there that we meet the rest of the characters--professors, students, activists, and patients (one particularly compelling story is a mother who is suffering from cancer and uses marijuana medicinally. They could have used more of her story.) A large part of the movie focuses on their efforts (which ultimately failed) to pass Proposition 19 in 2010. The festival guide describes this as, "Possibly the most honest marijuana film out there." I suppose it is as honest as its subjects, who are remarkably open about their marijuana use. But the honesty is self-selecting, so we really only get certain views of the story, and we don't even get a sense that the filmmakers were interested in other views. I understand that it's a pro-pot documentary, and I'm fine with that. But I was particularly annoyed by how dismissive they were (in a short piece of animation) of the growers who didn't want Prop 19 to pass because they were afraid it would drive down their prices (this was a big part of the much better short documentary POT COUNTRY at last year's Docfest.) Oh, and they never even bothered to explain what 420 means or where it came from, and it's not like it's some big secret. Anyway, the movie was actually pretty well made, and entertaining in scenes but it didn't entirely hold together.

Next up was another drug documentary, THE SUBSTANCE: ALBERT HOFFMAN'S LSD. It starts with the fairly amusing story of how Albert Hoffman, as a young chemist experimenting on himself with ergot (a type of fungus that grows on rye) took a fraction-of-a-milligram dose of a chemical he had isolated--Lysergic Acid Diethylamide--and had a pretty wild experience. It then follows the history in a fairly straight forward manner. It goes from it's use in psychiatric practice/research, to it's embrace by the likes of Ken Kesey and Dr. Timothy Leary, to it's close association with the hippie movement (and the Haight Ashbury neighborhood that exploded with homelessness in the later 60's.) It's a well produced movie and has some interesting points, but it never really rises above a PBS style recitation of the facts. Okay, so LSD became a banned substance. What were the arguments for or against that? Was it a good or bad thing? If it was used in psychiatric research/treatment before, will it be again (with some loosening of the rules around it) and is that likely to be good or bad? We don't really get any answers to this. But we do get the obligatory distorted "psychedelic" effects that are in just about every LSD movie.

Hey, I just realized that not only were 3/5 of the Indiefest shows on Sunday drug-related, but 3/5 of them were documentaries. The next show was the one documentary program that was not drug-related.

First off, the short STREET BY STREET. A recent San Francisco transplant walks along the streets of San Francisco, and in a series of letters between herself and her father, compares the joy of walking in San Francisco and in her hometown in Turkey.

And then a truly amazing documentary, DEAF JAM. It's all about American Sign Language (ASL) poetry. Yeah, poetry without voiced words, and it's some amazing stuff. And the thing is, I know I don't really get it. ASL isn't just translated English words into gestures. It's its own language, its own culture, and there are many elements to it. Facial expression, hand position, hand shape, motion, all go into it. In fact, I know I'm forgetting one because in the beginning they run through the 5 elements of an ASL sign. Then they show an ASL poet and point out he "rhymed" in 4 ways at the same time (no, I couldn't follow it...but I was amazed.) I, as a hearing person, have my bias where I think I have this whole world of sound that the deaf are missing. This movie gave me a taste that there's a whole world of ASL expressiveness that I'm missing.

The story focuses on a group of teens from the Lexington School for the Deaf in Queens, NY. They are introduced to ASL poetry, have their own poetry show, but take it one step forward to compete in the New York poetry slam, introducing ASL poetry to an audience of hearing children (who, of course, don't quite get it.) The main character is Aneta Brodski, an Israeli immigrant from an all-deaf family. She's also the one student who isn't graduating this year. She has one more year and so her story continues. And as if the story wasn't amazing enough up to that point, during her senior year she ends up collaborating with a hearing slam poet. And not just anyone, but Tahani, a Palestinian American poet. Now that's some history right there--a deaf Israeli girl and a hearing Palestinian girl becoming friends and creating hybrid spoken/ASL poetry together. Wow!

Oh yeah, and much of the movie there was a speaking interpreter for the ASL. The speaker is always subtitled, as are much of the ASL-only scenes. So the deaf audience can get this movie at least as well as a hearing audience. And the ASL-fluent audience can get it even better. The general issues of deafness, cochlear implants, and ASL as a culture are brought up in the movie, and I think it would be very valuable for deaf audiences to see this.

Next up was a special retrospective screening of Larry Kent's 1967 masterpiece HIGH. Shot in 16 mm (and shown in an uncut 16 mm instead of the edited/censored 35 mm version that existed before.) Kent (who was a major influence on a number of Canadian directors, most notably David Cronenberg) said that this film was a response to his visiting the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco two consecutive years and seeing how much it changed (for the worse) in such a short time, going from the free love days to overcrowded decay in just a year (something that THE SUBSTANCE: ALBERT HOFFMAN'S LSD also touched on.) Here he shows the dirty underside of the free-love drug culture through his two protagonists Tom (Lanning Beckman) and Vicky (Astri Thorvik.) Tom hustles money any way he can (yes, any way he can) on the streets of Montreal and hooks up with librarian Vicky who quickly becomes his partner/accomplice. They do a lot of drugs. They have sex (in some very frank scenes.) The film switches from black and white to color to red-infused in response to their levels of highness. And it is full of funny little moments like, "I need the money, I have a kid and three wives to take care of!" or "Have you read all these bricks? No, I just keep them around to impress people." (maybe you had to be there for that last one.) And it even has a happy ending...of a sort. Well, it made me happy, and Larry Kent insisted it was a happy ending.

HIGH plays again...today! Tuesday the 21st at 7:15 pm.


Finally, I ended the night with WITHOUT. This was a really odd, really tense movie that worked in nearly every scene but ultimately didn't add up to much--lots of tension and no release. Joslyn is hired by a couple to come to an island (it's shot on Whidbey island, WA, which is in Puget Sound and happens to be near where I grew up in Bellingham) and take care of an invalid old man (I assume, but didn't catch, that he was the father of one of them) while they're away on vacation. They pelt her with dozens of rules--no knives in the dishwasher, you can have some Kahlua but no whiskey, keep the TV volume between 54 and 56, he likes watching the fishing channel, etc. And then they're gone and she's all alone without even cell phone service. In fact, as the title suggests, there's a lot that she's without--contact with the outside world, her girlfriend, possibly her mind. Oh yeah, it took a long time to reveal that she has (or rather had) a girlfriend. Or that she is from this island. Or that she has an ex-boyfriend here who is kind of aggressive. It says something pretty telling about our electronically connected culture that her cell phone--despite having no service--is practically another character in the movie. She spends a good part of her days looking at pictures or videos of her girlfriend on it. Whenever she goes to sleep she wakes up to find her phone isn't where she left it. That element--along with the TV mysteriously changing channels and/or volume--is the biggest genre element in the movie. And it ratchets up the tension nicely (either there is something weird going on or she is going insane.) But as I said before, there's never really a release of the tension. I spent the whole movie (and the whole BART ride home) wishing something would actually happen in the movie.

WITHOUT played again Monday the 20th at 7:15 pm, but I didn't have this post up in time to let you know. Sorry about that.

Total Running Time: 415 minutes
My Total Minutes: 266,927
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